Early in 2009, a deadly strain of swine flu had emerged in Mexico, taking health authorities by surprise. In April, the WHO had raised its pandemic alert level to phase five, the second highest next to a full pandemic. In response, the UK Government decided to act after five cases appeared in Britain, including a newly-wed couple and an unrelated child who had shared the same flight back from Mexico.
Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health, announced a raft of measures such as the further stockpiling of the anti-influenza drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, enough to cover more than 33 million people. At the same time an advertising campaign was launched with a simple message of personal hygiene: catch it, bin it, kill it.
“The three rules for seasonal flu are the same for swine flu: if you cough or sneeze, use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose, throw it away carefully after use, wash your hands. The message is: catch it, bin it, kill it,” Johnson said at a press conference announcing the campaign.
In the autumn of 2009, before the winter surge in seasonal flu, the slogan was repeated in newspapers and TV adverts as a warning of how easily the virus can spread when simple, basic hygiene standards are not followed. One advert showed a father sneezing and spreading germs by using a TV remote control, which his young son then picks up before sucking his thumb.
By then there was a new health secretary, Andy Burnham, who repeated the mantra: "Helping to stop the spread of flu is easy, simply by covering your nose and mouth with tissues when you cough and sneeze, throwing the tissue away and washing your hands really cuts the chances of spreading the virus.”
The “catch it, bin it, kill it” slogan has been used in subsequent government health campaigns in the hope of limiting the spread of infections other than flu, such as the norovirus stomach bug. The simple message to the public underlined the fact that once flu and similar infectious viruses began to spread widely in a population, the only method that can prevent further spread, apart from vaccines, is good personal hygiene.